The Cosmic Joke – Laughing Before the Punchline

I was sitting on the beach watching the waves. Next to me a man was sleeping, his family swimming in the water. A Sea Gull landed on the man’s blanket and started to investigate. It took interest in the contents of his open book bag, especially a small plastic package containing three peanut butter crackers. The Bird removed the package from the bag and endeavored to open it.

Since we’re of the same species, part of me felt loyalty to the man, his family, and their crackers- I thought I should wake him or scare the bird away myself. But part of me rooted for the Bird, and was captivated by its struggle to open the wrapper.

The Sea Gull used its beak like a bayonet, viciously stabbing the plastic wrapping. After it made an opening at one end, it started to lift the bag up and drop it. Lift the bag and drop it. Then it would stab it some more, then lift it up and drop it. Finally, one cracker squirted out. The Bird pounced on it and tried to eat it but couldn’t because the cracker was too big and too hard.

So the bird went back to the package and lifted up again, stabbed it some more, lifted up again, and soon the second cracker fell out. Same thing; the bird couldn’t eat it, so it returned to the wrapper to remove the third cracker. Same process, same result. Now the Bird had three crackers at its disposal. It began to impale them repeatedly, hoping to break them into smaller portions.

During its labor, before it could eat a single morsel, a dozen other Sea Gulls landed on the blanket, grabbed the three crackers, and flew away. The man woke up and looked with squinty eyes, confused.

The original Gull that broke its back removing the crackers stampeded around screaming and raising its wings to fight. It was pissed. That after all that desperate labor everything was gone. I don’t know if it’s possible, but I think it felt anguish. I laughed.

Why did I laugh? I laughed nearly the whole time. Part of me was nervous, because I felt like I should be doing something but wasn’t. Also, I laughed because this entire event just sort of unfolded in front of me.  But I laughed most of all at the end when this bird, whose expenditure of calories was surely in the thousands, lost everything.

The Germans have a word for that (of course they do). It’s called Schadenfreude, which means the malicious joy at another’s misfortune.

But why is it funny? Probably because I could identify. It’s a cosmic joke, common to all species. I started making human comparisons to the Sea Gull’s plight.

Imagine a farmer in the backwoods of Austria in the 17th century. This guy builds a beautiful home. Inside his walls are an orchard, a vineyard, a well. He toils beneath the sun, cultivating the Earth, breeding animals, and raising his family. Then, a group of unpaid unfed soldiers off from the Thirty Years War find his little estate and eat everything, burn everything, kill everything.

Not as funny, now. The Germans have another word for this, Weltschmerz, or ‘world-grief’.

Imagine a family who took out a loan on a house with high interests they thought they could pay- until the economy crashed. The value of their home plummets until its worthless, worth less than they originally bought it for. They’re in debt, have to foreclose, and considering homelessness for the first time in their life.

One way to look at the Sea Gull situation is that she lost what was rightfully hers. But they weren’t her crackers. One can also say that the farmer didn’t really own the land. He tended it, cared for it, but ultimately the life processes of all the plants and animals have their own sway; he merely facilitates it. Same with the homeowners. By signing a deed there is indeed a public ceremony recognizing the family’s right to property, but ultimately it’s abstract and a human construction that doesn’t guarantee anything.

And it’s the same with me. I am, if not struggling, striving to maintain my existence.  That means money, food, security. That means saving money so that one day I can take care of myself even if unable to work due to infirmary or old age. But no matter how much I try, no matter how secure I supposedly make myself, nothing guarantees that a bunch of sea gulls won’t land on my blanket and take everything away. Or that I’ll get a brain parasite and die. I don’t own life- it’s something I partake in.

My goal today is not to be bleak- it’s to reach the simple conclusion that, as the Buddhists say, “I will be separated from everything dear to me”.

That’s why I laughed. Because it’s a hard truth to swallow. Almost as hard as a giant peanut butter cracker. There’s two basic reactions to this news. On the one hand, you can hunker down, do everything you can to ward off disaster. You can stockpile food and money and safety nets to ensure your survival. But eventually, this strategy fails, because death is inevitable. The other reaction we see is a blasé “so what” in response to death. These people act (and live) as if it doesn’t bother them that everything will fall apart. Again, I think this is a failure to confront death- because detaching from the gravity of the situation seems to ignore a crucial attribute of life- that it’s not easy to let go.

OK, there’s a third option. A middle way. We can be mindful of the fact that every peanut butter cracker we wrestle free from life will eventually disappear. But that doesn’t mean we don’t struggle. Rather, we’re implored to cherish every taste.

Sometimes laughter, sometimes grief.  

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